The London Times reports that the Royal Navy has been ordered by the Foreign Office not to detain pirates because doing so “may breach their human rights.” The problem, you see, is that many of these pirates operate off Somalia, and the Somalian punishment for piracy, under sharia, is the removal of heads, arms, or other appendages. Such punishment would not only be inhumane–it would potentially entitle the pirates to asylum in Britain.

Gilbert and Sullivan could hardly have done it better: poor Frederick, the Dudley Do-Right hero of Pirates of Penzance, wriggles out of his indenture to the Pirate King by aiding (however ineffectively) in his capture. The Foreign Office can’t even manage this: in response to Conservative criticism, the best Britain’s diplomats could come up with was the claim that “There are issues about human rights . . . . The main thing is to ensure any incident is resolved peacefully.” (No wonder the Iranians found it so easy to knock off the Royal Navy last year.)

The Foreign Office’s grasp of law is as feeble as its morality. Piracy is a universal crime: indeed, it is the first universal crime, older even than slave-trading. All states have a duty to punish it as harshly as their law allows. This obligation is included in many relevant international conventions, including the 1958 Geneva Convention on the High Seas, to which Britain has been party since 1960, and the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, to which Britain acceded in 1997 by act of the Labour Government.

The Foreign Office’s delusion has two parts. One is a simple error: that pirates captured on the high seas have to be returned to the nearest country for trial. The second fallacy flows from the first. It’s more subtle, but it’s typical and pathetic: that international law descended from on high, and we have to obey all of it to the letter even if the other guy–Somalia, in this case–is unwilling or unable to live up to its commitments. Nonsense: “international law” is a fancy phrase for treaties between states, or for treaties that establish institutions that arbitrate between states. If Somalia cannot control its own waters–never mind the high seas–we are released from any obligation to do anything with them.